The seventh and final miracle in the Book of Signs (the first half of the Gospel of John) is the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11: 1-44). It is one of the longest accounts in the four Gospels, and the story’s importance to the Gospel of John cannot be underestimated. First, the story demonstrates the humanity and compassion of Jesus. Second, the sacred author tells us that Martha is, among the disciples, yet another influential woman who has something important to say. Third, the miracle demonstrates once and for all that Jesus is no mere prophet, no mere rabbi, no mere agitator for justice. This miracle settles the quest for the historical Jesus even before his resurrection. He is indeed the Christ, the one anointed by God who heralds the salvation of not only Judah or Israel, but the entire world.
This story emphasizes the humanity of Jesus like no other account in the four Gospels. Upon hearing that a good friend of Jesus’ has died, we find Jesus and his disciples debating the wisdom of returning to Judea, where they are not welcome. Martha and Mary,sisters of the deceased, reside in Bethany, only “two miles” from Jerusalem. Jesus decides that he must operate in the light of day, and therefore the mutual concern for his own physical safety and that of the disciples takes a back seat to being present to console Martha and Mary in their home near Jerusalem.
In verse 33, upon seeing Mary cry, we are told that Jesus becomes both “stirred up” (tarasso) and indignant or angry (embrimaomai), as if a great injustice had taken place. In verse 35, we are told that Jesus weeps at the sight of Mary crying (dakruo). The crowd is itself moved by his compassion, and they exclaim, “ide pos ephilei auton!” Behold how he loved him! Jesus then approaches the tomb, and again he becomes indignant. In both instances where the term “indignant” occurs in the original Greek, biblical translators opt for the more pastoral translation – he was deeply moved, or he was perturbed. These two terms don’t capture the depth of emotion and the sense of injustice that Jesus felt at the suffering of Martha and Mary.
Just as important to the passage is the faith shown by the disciples. First, Jesus receives word of the illness of Lazarus, and agrees to return to Bethany, in the direction of Jerusalem. Thomas Didymus agrees with Jesus: Let us go also, that we may die with him. When he arrives in Bethany, Martha expresses sorrow that Jesus had not arrived sooner to heal Lazarus. But she confesses an unshakeable faith in Jesus, saying in verse 22: And I know whatever you ask from God, God will give you.
But more importantly, Martha becomes only one of three disciples in the Gospel accounts who can claim in a personal conversation with Jesus that he is the Christ. In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter testifies that Jesus is the Christ. In John 4, the woman at the well proposes that the Christ is coming, and Jesus says, I am he. But here, in John 11, Martha does not merely testify, she shapes our understanding of Christology and the nature of Jesus. Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.
Her testimony is so astonishing that it becomes the foundation for a creed of the Church – that Jesus is “eternally begotten from the Father.” Martha says “Jesus is coming into the world.” The phrase, “eternally begotten,” effectively means that Christ is not merely created once or sent forth once, but rather eternally coming into the world.
Martha’s statement I have come to believe becomes part of the pattern and tapestry of the fourth gospel. The faith of the woman at the well, the royal official, the paralytic, the man born blind, and the testimony of Mary Magdalene about the resurrection, become central to John’s story. The beloved disciple tells us himself, in the final chapter of the fourth gospel, that he was an eyewitness to these amazing things, and that he believes them as well.
Finally, there is the miracle itself – the seventh and last sign in the ministry of Jesus. Bringing back a man from the dead is also a capstone miracle, a sign that is supposed to tell us something conclusive about the relationship between God the Father and Jesus. In fact, Jesus calls the Father daddy (Abba) at verse 41, when he thanks the Father in advance to answer his prayer to bring Lazarus back.
With this final sign, Saint John the Evangelist tells us that Jesus is definitively the Christ. The raising of Lazarus will anticipate Jesus’ own resurrection. More immediately, John tells us that this miracle causes a crisis among the Sanhedrin, who vow with determination to arrest and stop Jesus from continuing his ministry.
Links to the Sunday Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent Year A